05 July 2012

The Most Untrammeled Doorstep

We walked the last hour or so up to Rekë e Allagës.  The taxi driver had gotten fed up with the rough roads and a little lost - on foot, we followed a stream and a dirt track upwards, hoping that it was the way.  When we came up out of the pine forest, we asked at the first house - "Mustafa and Fetija?"
"Po, po," the man said, meaning yes, and sent us off with young children as guides.
When we stay at homestays, we always hope that it will be something like this - an idyllic setting, a unique culture, a world apart.  This is Kosovo at its most untouched.
We stayed on a dairy farm in Rekë e Allagës, a steep hamlet in the remote Rugova Valley.  Every morning, our hosts would pour their fresh milk into a pantry's worth of different pails and pans - some for kos (yogurt), some for djath (cheese) and some for mazė, (clotted cream).  Fetija, our hostess, cooked whole milk in low pans on the woodstove, letting the liquid slowly evaporate.  The mazė arrived on the table a chunky, shining mess of curds, very soft, to be used with everything.
Mustafa (second from right) had grown up on that very spot.  His uncle (far right) and father had been raised in a centuries-old stone house there, but the building was destroyed by a Serbian bomb.  "Boom" the uncle said, flattening his hands* out over the table and shaking his head.  "Nothing."
Fetija is also from the Rugova, but a different part - she talked quickly to us in Albanian, nodding to see if we understood, not caring that we didn't.  They talked about how cold it is in the winter, about snowshoes and several meters of snow.  Now, the family leaves between November and March, staying with Mustafa's parents in Peja.  The Rugova is beautiful in July, too hard in January.
*The uncle does have two hands, it's just that the picture is deceiving.
Mustafa had a rare energy and an amazing amount of hospitality.  He loved to talk with us, with hand gestures, some German, laughs and whistles.  In the Rugova, the people speak with lots of emphatic noises, a kind of separate language at the end of a sentence.  They make a swooshing sound to mean a long distance, or a semi-growl to express that something was incorrect.  At first, we thought that it was just part of the language barrier - but Mustafa and his friends used the signals in conversation amongst themselves, and Fetija would end her quick phrases to her husband the same way.
We spent a whole day hiking, making a long circuit around one wing of the valley, passing from meadow to forest to open fields.  We returned on the front edge of a thunderstorm, and found that Fetija had been busy all afternoon with something special.
If there were only one dish that Kosovar people claimed as their own, it would be flija.  We'll talk about it as a dish in more detail later, but the process seems like a separate, unique thing.
Flija is cooked from above, using heavy, metal covers that are heated up over wood coals.  Fetija spent almost five hours by the outdoor fire, laboring over the dish.  To be over-reductive, I'll describe flija as an integrated stack of dozens of crepes, cooked one layer at a time with butter and milk solids in-between.  It's exhausting and delicious. One can't find the true delicacy in stores or bakeries because it takes too long - the process is really one of waiting and burning wood.  Mustafa, Rebecca and I sat with her for the last hour, drinking beer and listening to the cows low in the barn.
Hiking here is an adventure of waterfalls and grazing cows, springs and - right now - millions of butterflies.  From his kitchen, Mustafa would point in one direction for Albania, to Valbona, and in another direction for Montengro.  In fact, he said that you could walk to the border with Montenegro - just three hours up the hill.  It's at places like this that one can remember how intricate the world of Europe is, where one alpine hillside can have its own traditions and people.   We heard of tours that passed through, walking from Albania to Montenegro to Kosovo, passing over peaks and sleeping in villages - we thought about what an adventure each new valley must seem, a new culture.
Some say that the Rugova Valley is the heartland of Kosovo, where all things uniquely Kosovar come from - but, really, Kosovo has just adopted the most evocative imagery from Rugova.  To call these people Kosovar is to call texans "North American."  It may be true, but it doesn't say much about the whole or the part.
And to say that we feasted isn't doing the food - or the portions - justice.  It's funny, but we hadn't found much "traditional" Kosovar food before we came here.  That partly has to do with Kosovo's taste for the international and the cuisines that have swept in from the wider world.  But it's also partly because "Kosovar" food is difficult to make, with recipes born in the mountains and given little thought in the lowlands.
Here is our supper the first night: a salad of sauerkraut, tomatoes and cucumbers; fresh bread; big tranches of homemade cheese; speca memaz, basically a pepper and cream soup; cups of fresh, cheesy yogurt; and leqenik, a dense, buttery cornbread.  All of the dairy - in four different forms - had come from the family cows.  It's heavy food, good for cool nights at elevation.
Staying in the Rugova, looking out at dark mountains and wild forest, one feels very far away from the KFOR-troop jeeps and supermarkets lower down.  There are no cafes or clothing boutiques, hardly any cars.  Men go to work with cow-twitches and chainsaws.  Mustafa told us that he doesn't want a car - he patted his legs and grinned, "very good," he said.
The truth is, it's not that far to Peja, one of Kosovo's largest cities.  The trip (when you can get a taxi to go all the way) only lasts about forty-five minutes.  The entry to the Rugova is just outside of Peja, though, and as soon as the canyon walls surround the road, one begins to feel far away.  The drive becomes twistier and rougher as it goes, with waterfalls and craggy spires alongside.  Turning up into the woods and towards Rekë e Allagës, all direction and distance is jumbled.  When a traveler emerges into the high meadows, there is nothing left of what they found below.
Under their porch, Mustafa and Fetija keep wooden barrels of cheese, wrapped in gauzy cloth and kept cool in the dark.  Mustafa talked proudly of the Italians that would come to buy cheese and mazė, of the traditions that he was part of.  He had lived for a few years in Switzerland, he has a brother in the Bronx, he knows about the outside world - but he also loves his home, and we could see the happiness he had there, in the hot and verdant days of early July.  On our first evening, we sat outside on the balcony and listened to his children play in the neighbors field - a gaggle of village kids rolled a tire down through the wildflowers over and over, shrieking and running.
When we try our hardest to reach into the ether of the unknown - try to make it to the furthest point, the most untrammeled doorstep - we always hope it will be something like this.  On our last night in Rekë e Allagës, we sat out on the balcony again with cups of turkish tea and the smoke of our hosts' cigarettes.  A full moon rose above the Prokletija Alps and we sat wondering where we were and how we had found our way there - it felt too distant to be real.


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